Would the world be a better place if we just wrote men out of the picture?

There’s a wealth of sci-fi devoted to a world without men. Biologically, the species might cope just fine, but other issues may arise, writes Paula Andropoulos

09 August 2020 - 00:03 By Paula Andropoulos
Women periodically fantasise about worlds without men.
Women periodically fantasise about worlds without men.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

On June 3 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol at his Factory in Lower Manhattan, maiming him. She also shot the art critic Mario Amaya, who was with Warhol that afternoon, and she would have executed Warhol's manager Fred Hughes point-blank had her pistol not jammed. Later that day, Solanas turned herself in to the police, surrendered her firearm, and confessed to the attempted murder of an icon who was then at the height of his powers.

Warhol would never be the same. Indeed, it's a miracle that he survived the attack, after five hours of surgery to repair the damage to his lungs, his oesophagus, spleen, stomach and liver. Physically vain in the extreme, and distraught at his slightly peculiar appearance at the best of times, Warhol would have to endure the additional encumbrance of a surgical corset for the remainder of his life. By all accounts, he never fully recovered.

Warhol's enduring fame has meant that, if you know of Solanas at all, it's probably only in connection with this very nearly fatal encounter. But what I continue to find most compelling about Valerie Solanas is that she truly dreamt of - and ardently advocated - a world without men.

Solanas was the founder and self-appointed president of SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. Its manifesto is a rambling, bizarre and frequently illogical document, positing at one and the same time that men are incapable of emotion, and that men are so consumed by emotion - feelings of inferiority and shame; that they are compelled to project their weakness and their dependency onto the female archetype.

Solanas laboriously justifies her belief that, "just as humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy."

Read with hindsight, the SCUM manifesto belies any suggestion that Solanas, a schizophrenic, was not of sound mind. The text is transphobic and homophobic and a devastating testament to the terrible sexual and emotional abuse Solanas suffered at the hands of men throughout her life, beginning with her father and step-grandfather.

Artist Andy Warhol was shot by a man-hating woman in 1968.
Artist Andy Warhol was shot by a man-hating woman in 1968.
Image: Getty Images/Hulton-Deutsch Collection

But there is also something unmistakably revolutionary about Solanas's contention that women, not men, are the ideal type; that men wish to be women; that it is they who are incomplete, defects, deviations, rather than the Freudian converse.

Solanas was by no means the first woman to fantasise about how the world might change for the better without men in it. There is a whole tradition of utopian and speculative/science fiction by women with this premise, dating back to the dawn of the 20th century.

In 1915 Charlotte Gilman Perkins, most famous for her canonically uncanny short story The Yellow Wallpaper, published Herland, a novel that describes an agrarian oasis of women who have co-existed in peaceful, platonic bliss since all their menfolk were taken out by a volcanic eruption. Having somehow mastered the secret of parthenogenesis - sperm-less reproduction - these women are highly self-sufficient, technologically adept, and equal to defending their territory against would-be male intruders.

The 'single-gender world' genre took off in the 1970s, when stories of male mass-extinction began to proliferate

The "single-gender world" genre really took off in the 1970s, when stories of male mass-extinction began to proliferate in science-fiction pulp periodicals. This burgeoning genre in particular gave female authors the licence to imagine worlds without men without provoking the wrath of their male readership, mostly because the inherently otherworldly settings of these stories placed them firmly in the realm of abstract or interplanetary fiction, far beyond earthly reproach.

There's Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, and my favourite, a novella, James Tiptree jnr's Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, in which a cohort of male astronauts from the past find themselves at the mercy of women and transmen from the cis-male-free future. (Tiptree is a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon.)

The narrator, a small, self-loathing scientist who accords well with Valerie Solanas's conception of the beta-male, finally confronts the women as follows:

"We built your precious civilisation and your knowledge and comfort and medicines and your dreams. All of it. We protected you, we worked our balls off keeping you and your kids. It was a fight, a bloody fight all the way. We're tough. We had to be, can't you understand? Can't you for Christ's sake understand that?"

To which one of the women he addresses kindly, irrefutably responds:

"Of course we enjoy your inventions and we do appreciate your evolutionary role. But you must see there's a problem. As I understand it, what you protected people from was largely other males, wasn't it?"

It's hardly challenging to extrapolate why it is that women periodically fantasise about worlds without men. Rape. Femicide. Gender-based violence. Women are certainly capable of violence, but boy, do (predominantly heterosexual, cisgender) men dominate the market.

Statistically speaking, a world without men might well be a world miraculously purged overnight of serial killers, school shooters, date rapists, wife-beaters; militarism, capitalism, colonialism, industrialism. By and large, these are the provinces of men; cruel excess has so far been the hallmark of the male of our species.

A world without men needn't be a world without masculinity, mind you - many of the women (and transmen) featured in these fantasies have appropriated some of the best ideologically "masculine" attributes for themselves, sometimes with the aid of science: physical strength, mechanical prowess, and, above all, unfaltering self-confidence are all restored to the surviving genders, but without the destructive correlates.

Women are, of course, capable of tremendous evil. Ironically, it's precisely because we've been systemically oppressed throughout recorded history that we don't know whether or not we'd revert to the same kind of self-interested behaviours that we associate with men, given the opportunity. But most studies on the subject have shown that women are less impulsive, and more dialogue-driven than prone to fisticuffs, even if the same studies cannot say for sure whether this is a biological phenomenon or a function of socialisation.

A world without men is not outside the realm of possibility, either. The Y chromosome is, after all, the only chromosome not necessary to human survival. Sperm can be engineered in labs. A female egg could, conceivably, be artificially fertilised with female stem cells from another female body, instead of with sperm; it's been done before with mice.

To eradicate men and save women, we would first have to radically differentiate between the two

There are no more male whiptail lizards: like the women of Herland, these ladies have found a way to reproduce via parthenogenesis.

Aside from the fact that we love men - consequential though this fact may be - I cannot help but reflect that, given how far we've come in the past five or 10 years in our understanding of gender, romanticising a world without men might today be counterintuitive. To eradicate men and save women, we would first have to radically differentiate between the two, and I think - I hope - we are beyond that.

A gynocentric, essentialist feminist paradigm that bifurcates gender and conflates it with genitalia belongs in the past, JK Rowling and her ilk notwithstanding. Put otherwise, a world without men would perhaps, by definition, be hostile to variety; to the explorations of liminality and duality that make us, at our best, fundamentally human.


WORKS OF FEMINIST DYSTOPIA

When She Woke (2011): Hillary Jordan writes about a conservative US in the not-too-distant future where people are punished for their crimes by "chroming" or ingesting a virus that colours their skin according to the seriousness of the crime, with red reserved for the most violent crime - murder. Hannah Payne becomes pregnant by a married man and chooses to have an abortion. She's charged with murder and wakes to find herself coloured red from head to toe.

The Power (2016): Naomi Alderman's feminist revenge fantasy set in a world where women have the ability to give electric shocks with their fingers, leading to them becoming the dominant gender.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985): Margaret Atwood's speculative classic about a theocratic state enabled by mass infertility.

A scene from ’The Handmaid’s Tale’, the series based on Margaret Atwood's novel.
A scene from ’The Handmaid’s Tale’, the series based on Margaret Atwood's novel.
Image: Supplied

An Excess Male (2017): Maggie Shen King imagines China in 2030 in the aftermath of the nation's one-child policy. Forty-million men can't find wives, and women are forced by the state to marry multiple husbands.

Future Home of the Living God (2017): Society breaks down in this novel by Louise Erdrich after women start bearing children with birth defects - babies who resemble earlier species of humankind. The government declares a state of emergency, martial law is imposed, and pregnant women are forced into state custody.

The Water Cure (2018): Sophie Mackintosh's unsettling novel asks the question "What if masculinity were literally toxic?"

Before She Sleeps (2018): By Bina Shah and set in a near-future Middle Eastern city in a world that's been decimated by nuclear war and disease. Surviving fertile women are forced into polygamous marriages with multiple men.

Hazards of Time Travel (2018): Joyce Carol Oates writes about an autocratic US, where students are taught that men have higher IQs than women. Denying this "truth" results in terrible punishments involving time travel.

Vox (2018): Christina Dalcher's novel imagines a future in which an ultraconservative political party gains control of the US congress and the White House, and enacts policies that force women to become submissive homemakers.

Afterland (2020): Lauren Beukes's latest novel is set in 2023. Women are in charge by default, because almost the entire male population has been wiped out by a virus.


SOCIETIES AROUND THE GLOBE RUN BY WOMEN 

Minangkabau, Indonesia: This is the largest surviving matriarchal society, with more than 4-million people. They believe the mother is the most important person in society. Marriage is allowed but partners must have separate sleeping quarters.

Mosuo, China: China's last surviving matriarchy, they practise Tibetan Buddhism and are about 40,000 strong. Property is handed down the female line; they don't marry or live together as partners. The women raise the children.

Akan, Ghana: Identity, inheritance, wealth and politics are in the women's realm, but men can have leadership positions.

Khasi, India: About 1-million individuals. Mothers and mothers-in-law are the only ones who can care for children. When women marry, their surname is passed down instead of their husband's.

Bribri, Costa Rica: Made up of an estimated 12,000 to 35,000 people. Women are revered and property is owned by females.

Umoja, Kenya: Meaning "unity" in Swahili, men are banned from the community which is a haven for women who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence.


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